HL Deb 14 January 1992 vol 534 cc182-91

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

London Regional Transport has a great responsibility to the public to provide transport to meet passengers' needs in Greater London safely and efficiently. Unfortunately, millions of pounds are being lost every year because of the evasion of fares. Members in this House have always been keen on the idea of a penalty fares Bill and they passed a Bill through all its stages in this House. However, it was lost because it ran out of time in the other place when the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who is in the Chamber tonight, dealt with the matter as Minister.

It is extremely important that those people who use the system and pay for its service should not be defrauded by others who are unwilling to pay their fares. According to the annual survey, it has been calculated that about £12 million a year is now being lost on the Underground and an additional £17 million on the buses. Although as a direct result of measures recently taken on the Underground the level of fraud has reduced, the losses are still far too high. It is generally accepted that further measures are therefore needed.

The Bill has been through all its stages in the other place and it is hoped that it will become law. It is similar to a measure passed in 1989 giving penalty fare powers to British Rail. The pilot penalty fares scheme of British Rail has reduced the number of people travelling without tickets by around 90 per cent. in the year following implementation. There are plans to extend the scheme throughout Network SouthEast.

As was the case for British Rail, before the measure can be introduced the Secretary of State has to be satisfied on a number of points. I shall not go into detail but they include adequate staffing, sufficient ticket machines, arrangements for monitoring defective machines and the provision of inspectors. There is an appeals procedure for disputed cases. I hope that the Minister will confirm the Secretary of State's responsibilities.

It is at last possible to produce extremely reliable and effective passenger-operated ticket machines. These are able to provide change and are now available at all Underground stations. Ticket machines are currently available 99.9 per cent. of the time. There are never fewer than two machines at any station and at busy stations there are many more. As a result of modern technology it will be more straightforward to reduce the incidence of fraud.

The present maximum single fare on LRT is £3.40 and a penalty of £10 is suggested in relation to that. The charges have been set because of the lower charges on the buses and the Docklands Light Railway.

Staff involvement is essential to the success of penalty fares and staff will be fully consulted. Fraud has increased substantially in recent years. It would be quite wrong to allow those who wish to indulge in fraud to get away with it at the expense of the fare-paying passenger. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that genuine travellers who are not trying to evade the fare will not be penalised due to an error in the system. If a passenger is unable to pay his fare, the penalty fare will not apply if he can prove that no ticket was available at the station. If a passenger states that he could not buy a ticket, the onus of proof at that stage will be on London Transport. It must prove that the passenger was not telling the truth in saying that the station was closed, that no one was available to sell a ticket or that the machine was out of order.

I have checked the systems and have discovered that British Rail has a permit-to-travel system whereby one can obtain a permit even if one cannot buy a ticket. I asked why that system was not considered by LRT. Apparently its new technology is so good that it will be possible instantly through the central computer system to know whether a passenger is telling the truth in saying that a machine is out of order or that no station staff are available. However, if the passenger wishes to raise one of those reasons after the incident, he has 21 days from the day after the completion of the journey in which to do so. Only then comes the transfer of the burden of proof. The burden of proof first lies upon London Transport. However, if the passenger does not respond with an explanation instantly or within 21 days, the burden of proof will then rest upon him. Clearly, the instantaneous system of checking will not be available 21 days later.

It is important that the measure is introduced as soon as possible in order to make a substantial contribution towards the income of LRT. Recovery of the money that is at present being lost will be of benefit to all other passengers. Penalty fares will act as a deterrent to fraud. More people will find it wiser and cheaper to pay the proper fare. Recovery of the extra ticket revenue must be of benefit to all London Transport passengers. I urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Baroness Gardner of Parkes.)

7.46 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for explaining the purpose of the Bill. I must make it clear that I speak from the Dispatch Box in a personal capacity; my remarks are my own. I have no intention of opposing the Bill. My remarks are intended to be helpful and I wish to make some points which the Select Committee might consider.

I have read the Second Reading debate which took place in the other place on 9th July last year. I noticed in particular the points raised by Mr. Tony Banks, the Member for Newham North-West, and Mr. Harry Cohen, the Member for Leyton. Both appear to be regular users of London Underground. I recognise the serious nature of the problem as explained by the noble Baroness and by Mr. Neil Thorne, the Member for Ilford South, who piloted the Bill through the Commons.

The figures to which the noble Baroness referred were accepted by the Minister, Mr. Roger Freeman. However, I should be interested to know exactly how they were obtained. The firms which conducted the surveys stated that they could not give a precise figure of loss. One can readily understand that. The surveys or the monitoring carried out must indicate what evasion takes place, the nature of the evasion and the steps that must be taken to counter it. I understand that the Minister said that the Bill was closely based on the recommendations of a working party set up in May 1986, almost five years ago.

I note the Bill provides that before the procedure can be implemented on any particular route an activating order must be made by the Secretary of State. The Minister stressed that before an order is made and the scheme proceeds there must be fair and workable conditions. During the debate the Minister, Mr. Freeman, stated: the Secretary of State will need to be assured that satisfactory arrangements exist for staffing ticket offices and for monitoring and repairing ticket machines".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/91; col. 845.] Noble Lords will recall that I have sometimes been critical of the ticket barriers. However, I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, who assured me that under the new regulations a member of staff had to be on hand. There has been a great improvement in the Underground stations which I have visited.

Nevertheless, I understand that following the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report on London Underground, a survey indicated that 45 per cent. of the people questioned said that they were regular travellers who had experienced difficulties with regard to ticket barriers. I recognise that there must be a need to use staff as fully as possible both in the interests of efficiency and staff satisfaction. However, in the debate in another place Mr. Tony Banks suggested that the diminution in staff numbers is one of the most obvious reasons for fare evasion. We should take note of that.

Both Members of Parliament from east London gave instances of stations without staff. They stated that it depended upon the time at which they were travelling. There are problems also at stations without ticket machines. Moreover, there are ticket machines which cannot deal with, for example, concessionary fare tickets. Of course problems are also created when stations are closed.

In previous debates in this House I have referred to my personal experiences. I intended to travel today by tube from my local station but it was closed. It is closed at certain periods of the day. That can only be due to inadequate numbers of staff. It may be argued that the people who live at Buckhurst Hill are so respectable that it would be worth the risk of losing a little money rather than paying staff to man the booking office.

There has been a problem also when the booking office at Buckhurst Hill station has been closed, particularly in the height of the tourist season, as regards paying the excess fare. One must join a queue of 20 or 30 people in order to pay a fare which one wanted to pay at Buckhurst Hill but could not because the station was not manned.

The Members of Parliament in another place said that in their experience evasion took place mainly after six o'clock at night. They emphasised, as I do, that adequate training must be given as regards inspections carried out on trains. There is a problem about inspections at peak periods. I use the Central Line. I can assure your Lordships that no ticket inspector could possibly go along the train to inspect tickets at peak periods. The question of congestion on trains must be looked into carefully if the aims of the Bill are to be carried out in the way we should like.

I turn now to the problem of unmanned stations. Because I cannot get a taxi at Buckhurst Hill station I go to the next station where I can get a taxi. I cannot recall an occasion in the past two months when there has been anyone to receive my ticket at Loughton station. Again, that can only be due to the inability of London Transport to engage the necessary staff. One presumes that that is for financial reasons.

Where there has been an inspector, I have always found him to be extremely courteous and he has done his job in a proper manner. I have no criticism as regards that. However, I do not know how one deals with the problem of inspection on trains during peak periods. I believe that it is necessary to rely solely upon the ticket barriers at peak periods and if there is a problem with them that creates great difficulties.

I refer also to the problems raised by Mr. Harry Cohen, the MP for Leyton. I appreciated the fact that the agents for the Bill and representatives of London buses and London Transport met me to discuss the points which had been raised in the course of the Second Reading debate in another place and which were referred to by Mr. Neil Thorne. Noble Lords may ask why I am interested in the points raised by Mr. Cohen. For the first 34 years of my life I lived in Leyton and for 11 of those years I was the honorary secretary/organiser of the constituency party organisation. When I travel by car I travel through Leyton along Lea Bridge Road, which is one of the problems to which I shall refer. I do not expect the Minister to be in a position to deal with the details of the bus services going through Leyton and along Lea Bridge Road. However, it may be useful to repeat the points here so that the Select Committee may take a careful look at them.

Noble Lords may ask why I raise these points because the question of bus services has nothing to do with penalty fares. However, if one has to change buses because they are no longer running as far as one wishes to go, there is a possibility of fare evasion.

Mr. Cohen complained in particular of the fact that services 38 and 55 have been cut out. The arguments given to me by the representatives of London buses is that most people using those routes to central London start their journey from Islington and only 8 per cent. use the service from Leyton through to central London. It is argued also that Lea Bridge Road is served by routes 46 and 58 and that route 48 still runs into the City and covers much of the old route 38 as far as Islington. However, if one has to change from one bus to another the possibility of fare evasion arises.

I was surprised to read that Mr. Neil Thorne, in the Second Reading debate in the other place, argued that the changes in cutting out buses had improved reliability and that it had benefited more passengers than it had affected adversely because of bus links being broken. I do not wish to use this occasion for a political argument but it seems to me an irony that if buses are cut out things run more smoothly. That is a point which we must remember as regards the deregulation of buses in London. However, that is a political point which is not concerned with the Bill this evening.

It is suggested also that the reason for cutting out the buses, which has been done on certain routes, including Lea Bridge Road and Leyton, is traffic congestion. There is traffic congestion along parts of Lea Bridge Road, but if buses are cut out where do the passengers go? Are they using the buses which remain and thus causing further congestion on those buses? It cannot be argued that people in the area can use the Underground because it is a long walk from the area of Lea Bridge Road to Leyton station to catch a Central Line train to Walthamstow Central on the Victoria Line. It would provide those people with a good excuse to give their bosses for being late for work. Alternatively, having found out that buses have been cut on those routes, are people using their cars —which is exactly what we do not want them to do?

When I travel by car, as I do sometimes, although I endeavour to use the Underground whenever possible, there is congestion along Lea Bridge Road. It occurs mainly—again I do not expect the Minister to know these local details but they may be useful for the purposes of the Select Committee —from Whipps Cross roundabout to the Bakers Arms and sometimes as far as Markhouse Corner. The congestion is usually caused by cars parked alongside the road. There is a garage with cars for sale and there are usually about nine or 10 cars parked along the road. It is a road which carries not only buses but also commercial lorries. That is the problem; but it is not a justification for taking off those buses.

The main speech of the Minister in the other place came early on and therefore unfortunately no arguments were advanced either from the promoter of the Bill or from the Minister. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with many of the points raised tonight, though I do not expect him to deal with the detail. However, I hope that those are points of which the Select Committee will take note bearing in mind that my purpose is to see that the Bill is successful. I believe that the points I have raised are relevant.

8 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we on these Benches—on this occasion I speak for my party on the matter since I am obviously in no danger of contradiction—support the system of penalty fares for London transport. It is blatantly unfair that those travellers who buy tickets should subsidise those who do not. It is also unfair to the taxpayers who subsidise the system.

As the noble Baroness carefully pointed out, the system must not be unfair to the passengers themselves. It must operate in a fair way and be seen to operate in a fair way. It must be seen particularly that all care is taken to ensure that passengers can obtain a ticket before embarking on a journey. If for any reason a passenger cannot, that fact must be easy to check. I should therefore appreciate it if we could be told how, there being no facilities available for the sale of the necessary fare, that situation will be interpreted.

The noble Baroness appeared to have a touching faith in modern technology. It is not always shared by those of us who must rely on it. There are many cases, of which probably all noble Lords have experience, when it is impossible to obtain a ticket before travelling; for instance, where the station is not attended either officially or sometimes, I fear, unofficially for shorter periods of time, or where the change-giving machines are not working. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised the question of concessionary fare availability. That is important.

I am delighted that there will be instantaneous checking of facilities so that the inspector can be informed. However, will the inspector on the train know? Will he possess a portable machine by which he is able to plug into the central computer? Or will the system depend on his obtaining a name and address and being able to check up when he reaches a station.

I am delighted to hear that in the first instance the burden of proof will be on the authority and not on the passenger. I am dubious about whether it is impossible to check back. Given this wonderful new system, which records what facilities are available on any station on the London Underground system, I should have thought the keeping of records for a limited amount of time would not strain the system too much. The onus of proof could then stay on the authority.

Those are all matters of detail which must be carefully checked at the Committee stage of the Bill. In the meantime, I hope that the Minister, and possibly the noble Baroness, will be able to give some of the answers to the questions I have raised. In the meantime we support the principle of the Bill.

8.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gardner for so ably introducing the Bill. I am pleased to take this opportunity to set out the Government's attitude to it.

The Government support the LRT (Penalty Fares) Bill before us today as they have LRT's previous Bills. It must be right that those travelling on London Transport's services who deliberately set out not to pay the correct fare should be discouraged from doing so. That is the purpose of the Bill.

Your Lordships may be aware from debates we have had in this House on previous LRT Bills that LRT already has powers to operate penalty fares under the London Regional Transport Act 1984 and the London Docklands Railways Act of 1984, 1985 and 1986. But because there was dissatisfaction with those powers, the Government established a working group in 1986 to review the principles which should apply to penalty fares schemes on public transport. The Bill currently before us has been closely based on the recommendations of the working group.

Your Lordships will know that there have been other Bills with penalty fares provisions which have been approved by Parliament. But your Lordships, quite rightly, will be concerned that the principles of a fair and reasonable penalty system are properly reflected in the current LRT Bill and that honest passengers are fully protected.

I do not wish to comment in detail on the Bill, but there is one important aspect I should like your Lordships to bear in mind. In order for the powers within this Bill to come into effect my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport will have to issue an activating order. My noble friend Lady Gardner referred to that, as did the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Beaumont. I can assure your Lordships that no such order will be issued unless the scheme proposed is fair and workable. The sort of things my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be looking for before he makes any activation order are whether all the necessary arrangements are in place to operate the scheme and to protect honest passengers from being penalised if no opportunity to buy a ticket has been provided. That was a point also made by the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Beaumont.

My right honourable friend will also need to be satisfied that there are adequate publicity arrangements to inform passengers about the rules and that procedures for disputes and appeals are in place. In addition he will need to be assured that satisfactory arrangements exist for staffing ticket offices and monitoring and repairing ticket machines; also that ticket inspectors are properly trained to operate the scheme, that they are deployed appropriately and that they have proper identification. I hope that that gives some reassurance to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Beaumont.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that it would seem strange—and difficult to justify to passengers and taxpayers alike—if this latest penalty fares Bill from London Transport were to be blocked when Parliament has approved similar provisions for other operators. I hope that your Lordships will support the Bill.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have taken part in the debate. I am interested in the points that have been raised. To reply to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, in the first instance the question of concessionary fares and machines not being effective for that purpose is one which London Transport may have to consider. It may be that something on the lines of a machine where one can at least obtain some form of ticket, is the answer. I am in favour of that, but there will have to be consideration of whether it is a practical proposition. If one could obtain something from a machine which states the station, the time and the date, then at least one would have established that although one was not able to obtain a concessionary fare, at least one had proof of being at that station. A concessionary fare would then be available.

The noble Lord asks whether inspectors can manage on the trains. I have seen inspectors on busy central London tube lines in the morning. It is interesting that the people who do not possess tickets are always greatly embarrassed. Knowing that the penalty fares Bill passed this House, I am always annoyed that passengers are never charged more than the cost of the standard ticket when it clearly costs a substantial amount to have someone there checking the situation. If this Bill goes through I am pleased that there will not only be someone checking but also that a penalty will be imposed. That is the important deterrent. I have seen inspectors at work on the central London tube in the peak hour and the system seems to work quite well.

The noble Lord raised the matter of Lea Bridge Road. I too read the debate in the other House and saw that this matter was a subject of interest. I enquired as to the present position. As the noble Lord said, although the issue is not strictly within the lines of this Bill, it was raised in the earlier debate and it has now been raised again. I believe that it will help to place on record the present position.

London Transport has said that it will reconsider the issue of through services between Leyton and central London when bus priority measures have been introduced in Lea Bridge Road. The London borough of Waltham Forest is the traffic authority responsible for bus priority measures of this kind in Lea Bridge Road. London Transport's bus priority unit has held discussions with the London borough of Waltham Forest over developing bus priority measures. A design brief, setting out the area to be studied and the problems to be addressed, has been drawn up and invitations to consultants to tender for the work have been advertised. It is expected that a contract will be let shortly and the successful consultants are expected to start work by the beginning of March 1992. That sounds as if some progress is being made.

I feel very strongly about the point made concerning changing buses and how that is an encouragement to evade fares. It is usually much more expensive to have to take two short trips on buses than if one bus goes all the way. The decision to make bus runs shorter was taken to avoid traffic congestion. I can understand the reason. It is time that London Transport looked into the systems that work in other countries where there is a continuation ticket. For example, if one gets on the bus at Oxford Circus and one wants to go past Hyde Park Corner, although the bus finishes there, one has to pay quite a high amount to get as far as Hyde Park Corner. If one were able to use that ticket and to pay only the difference between that and what one would have paid if the one bus had gone all the way, that would be much fairer to the public. Because it would be fairer, there would be less cause for evasion. All the transfer ticket systems work very well, particularly in New York where I am most familiar with the system. These are all matters that should be considered over the years and I shall certainly do all I can to urge that they be considered.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked about the burden of proof. I wish to clarify that so that there is no doubt about it. In the first instance I may not have been 100 per cent. accurate. Clause 5 of the Bill deals with a person who becomes liable for a penalty fare which is disputed because he says, there were no facilities available for the sale of the necessary fare ticket either at the London Underground station or the British Rail station where his journey started, or there was a notice or an authorisation of the kind described —that is to say, a notice saying that one can travel without a ticket. In that situation, if the passenger explains to the ticket inspector at the time he is required to produce a ticket that he has not got one for any of the reasons I have just mentioned, then it is for London Transport to prove that the passenger is not correct.

The noble Lord hoped, and reading the Bill I believe it is the case, that if the passenger is given a notice to pay the penalty fare and he gives an explanation within 21 days of his failure to produce a ticket, based on the reasons I have outlined, it remains for London Transport to prove that the statement is not correct. I believe that that is what the noble Lord asked about. The onus of proof changes in a case where a passenger does not provide a statement at the time that he is "caught" or within 21 days. It is then for him to prove that the facts do fall within the grounds I have described. I believe the situation is as the noble Lord put it. I believe that I am able to confirm that that is the situation.

I am most grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. There is the prospect of benefit to all Londoners who use our very valuable transport system. Penalty fares will deal with the opportunist or foolish traveller who believes that it is smart not to pay. I hope that the extra revenue will be of benefit to all. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.40 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The sitting was suspended from 8.16 to 8.40 p.m.]